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When your child loses a parent

Emma Grey

When my husband Jeff died in July from undiagnosed heart disease, I wanted to hold ‘my people’ close.

I reached for support from my family and friends, and from the HerCanberra family too.

There were nights when complete strangers would turn up on my doorstep with dishes of food, movie tickets to distract our family or anonymous petrol vouchers left in our letterbox. I’ve never felt more surrounded, uplifted and cared for, and its support that I realise was made possible by a long participation in a big community online, for which I’ll always be grateful in ways I can barely articulate.

Socially, when you’re grieving for your partner, you tend to want to stay close to people you know. You don’t want to have to ‘explain’. It’s a huge effort to make ‘small talk’ when your perspective on life has been grabbed by the scruff of its neck and dragged out to the edges of the universe. I didn’t have much energy left to meet new people, and yet new people were entering my life because of the circumstances into which I’d been catapulted against my will, and there was one particular kind of ‘new person’ who I especially didn’t feel ready to meet.

‘Widow’ is an awful word. It’s something old people are. It’s dark and lonely and sad. At least, that’s the image I had in my head before I became a widow, at 42, and had to reimagine the reality. At the suggestion of a friend, I joined a closed Facebook group of 18 local ‘young’ widows and widowers but didn’t feel ready to engage. Meeting these women and men might confirm the one thing I wasn’t ready to accept: Jeff isn’t coming back, is he?

“My life is terrible,” my little boy would say. “I’m only five and my dad has already died. I’m different from everyone else. We don’t have a real family.” It was heart wrenching stuff, night after night after night. He came home from school one day and said nobody was playing with him because Daddy had died and it was too sad when he talked about it. That was it. I realised I was going to have to engage with others in our boat, whether I was ready for reality or not, just to ‘normalise’ some of this for him.

I put out a call on the ‘Canberra Mums’ Facebook page, asking if anyone knew of any informal playgroups for young children who had lost a parent. Several women responded, and let me know that they had formed a group for exactly this purpose: to give their children the knowledge that, “It’s not just me”.

The founding members (now new friends) explained to me that the purpose of the group is really just for the children to get to know each other, without any pressure or need to talk about losing their parent. It’s not a ‘support group’ – it’s a social group.

One day, when our children are teenagers, if they’re having a bad time, or if it’s Father’s Day or Mother’s Day and they’re really feeling it, they’ll have another teen friend who they’ve known for years and can message and say, “this is *#$%”. There will be a friend from childhood who really gets it.

The group embraced me and my son when we first met, and that was the moment I noticed a subtle change in how he coped with what had happened. It’s not just him. He’s not weird. He’s not alone. There are other, ‘normal’ kids who love Minecraft or lego or playgrounds and hot chocolates and who also happen to be grieving for a parent who has died.

The difference I can see this group making in our lives can’t be overstated. There might be others in the Canberra community who could do with some ‘normalising’ of this for their children too, and you would be most welcome.

If you’d like to get in touch, please email [email protected]

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Emma Grey

Emma Grey is the Canberra-based author of ‘Wits’ End Before Breakfast! Confessions of a Working Mum’ and ‘Unrequited: Girl Meets Boy Band’. She’s director of the life-balance consultancy, WorkLifeBliss and co-founder of a fresh approach to time-management, My 15 Minutes. She lives just over the ACT border with her two teen daughters and young son. More about the Author

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